Fantastic History #69: The Veiled Prophet by Dawn Vogel

Many Midwestern cities play host to festivals and other events that highlight their civic pride. In St. Louis, the Veiled Prophet emerged at the forefront of this phenomenon, and his “reign” over St. Louis for more than a century stands out among similar celebrations of cities.

The initial spark for the Veiled Prophet organization had its origins in the labor unrest of the late 1870s. In 1877, a worker’s strike had brought St. Louis business to a halt for nearly a week in late July. “Although St. Louis’s business class ultimately won the strike, the disruption had a profound effect on those who had been required to use force against their own workers.” As a part of the St. Louis Agricultural and Mechanical Fair, which had waned after the Civil War, the Veiled Prophet parade served “as a symbolic attempt to assert business-class control over the streets of St. Louis” and “an attempt to reclaim from the rapidly growing city of Chicago, pre-eminence for St. Louis as a manufacturing center and agricultural shipping point.” Though men in other cities organized into fraternal organizations, the Veiled Prophet organization differed from these groups in that “while it showed some degree of cultural and religious pluralism, it did not create bonds between white males of the upper, middle, and skilled working classes. The Veiled Prophet organization was an elitist organization that was important to its members because it demonstrated they were at the very top of St. Louis’s white male aristocracy.”
With the exception of the first Veiled Prophet ball in 1878, and until an activist protest in 1972 that forcibly unmasked the Veiled Prophet, his identity remained a closely guarded secret in most years. The Veiled Prophet himself, in whose honor the organization was formed and the parade was held, was more formally known as the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, who the Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote about in his 1817 Lalla Rookh. When brothers Charles and Alonzo Slayback, both members of St. Louis’s business elite, founded the secret society, they used this fictional character as the ruler of their planned parade. However, whether this was their original intent or merely happenstance is a matter of some debate. During the planning stages of the first Veiled Prophet parade in 1878, “the Slayback brothers acquired Mardi Gras float decorations from an 1868 Mistick Krewe of Comus parade themed on Lalla Rookh for $8,000.” One might assume that they then built the limited mythology around the mysterious Veiled Prophet on their knowledge of Moore’s poem. “The basic premise of Slayback’s retelling of the Veiled Prophet story was that a powerful ‘Grand Oracle’ of the ‘Veiled Prophets,’ the fictional ruler of St. Louis, would leave Persia to visit the city and witness its transformation into a place of affluence and beauty.”

However, Moore did not intend for his Veiled Prophet of Khorassan to be such a figure. “Known in the original as ‘the feared Mokanna,’ the Prophet was a hideous dictator who mesmerized his credulous subjects with parties and ornate ceremonies that distracted them from the truth of his tyranny.” During the early nineteenth century, when Moore was writing Lalla Rookh, “many Westerners imagined Eastern governments in places like India, Persia, or the Ottoman Empire as stereotypes of undemocratic rule they could use to point out similar injustices in their own nations.” So while the elite of St. Louis touted the Veiled Prophet of Khorassan as a worldly figure who marveled in the successes of St. Louis, those more familiar with the story and Moore’s intent “might see the affair as a self-aggrandizing display camouflaging selfish urban leaders.”

In addition to the spectacle of a parade that resembled Mardi Gras, the Veiled Prophet organization also used the event as an excuse to host a ball, during which their daughters, and the daughters of other social elites, could mingle with the appropriate kind of men to be their future husbands. “Unlike the parade, the second part of the annual celebration, the Veiled Prophet ball, was not meant to be seen by ‘the masses.’ Debutante balls, about which little scholarship exists, played an important role in the lives of the elites who participated in them. The Veiled Prophet balls allowed sponsors to see themselves as being ‘good fathers’ to their daughters—and these balls enabled these men to control their daughters’ courtships.” In the early years of the event, the Veiled Prophet selected one of the young women to dance with first, and she received the honor of being referred to as the belle of the ball. But her name was not published in the newspapers, because in the late 1870s and early 1880s, “it was considered improper for a young woman’s name to appear in print.” After 1885, the belles of the ball received more public acclaim, including mentions in the newspapers, and a decade later, the title was changed to “Queen of Love and Beauty,” a title that was bestowed on one young debutante who attended the Veiled Prophet’s ball.

The 1887 Veiled Prophet parade and ball were unusual because St. Louis was also playing host to President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland had not traveled widely prior to his ascending to the presidency, and when a delegation of St. Louisans asked him to visit their city, he agreed. As part of a grand tour of the Midwestern and southern states, Cleveland timed his trip to St. Louis to coincide with the Veiled Prophet parade and ball. As such, some changes were made to the standard operations of the event; for example, the Veiled Prophet did not select a belle of the ball in 1887.

While the Veiled Prophet parade and ball have changed greatly since their nineteenth century origins, they are still a part of St. Louis’s culture. From 1981-1995, St. Louis hosted the VP Fair (the VP standing for Veiled Prophet), which took place on the grounds of the Gateway Arch during the weekend nearest to the Fourth of July; in more recent years, the name of the event has been changed to Fair St. Louis, and is sometimes held in Forest Park. The Missouri Historical Society maintains a large collection of elaborate costumes worn by the Veiled Prophet, dresses worn by many debutantes, and other ephemera from the many years of this phenomenon’s history.


Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.

Fantastic History #62: The 19th Kentucky at Vicksburg by Dawn Vogel

Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a major Civil War stronghold. Confederate president Jefferson Davis referred to it as “the nailhead that held the South’s two halves together.” The city was positioned in a vital location for the Confederate supply line, allowing the South to receive food and other needed materials from the West. As such, Vicksburg was an obvious target for the Union forces under Major General Ulysses S. Grant.

Major General William Tecumseh Sherman began his advance on Vicksburg in December of 1862. Grant joined him there in March of 1863. Initial attempts to approach the city failed, but in late April 1863, “Union gunboats and troop transport boats ran the batteries at Vicksburg and met up with Grant’s men who had marched overland in Louisiana. On April 29 and April 30, 1863, Grant’s army crossed the Mississippi and landed at Bruinsburg, Mississippi. An elaborate series of demonstrations and diversions fooled the Confederates and the landings occurred without opposition.” Grant then conducted a series of attacks on the Confederate forces, ultimately forcing them to retreat to Vicksburg after sustaining heavy losses.

After additional assaults on the city of Vicksburg on May 19 and 22, 1863, Grant determined to settle in for a siege. His Special Orders No. 140, issued on May 25, 1863, dictated that “Corps Commanders will immediately commence the work of reducing the enemy by regular approaches. It is desirable that no more loss of life shall be sustained in the reduction of Vicksburg, and the capture of the Garrison. Every advantage will be taken of the natural inequalities of the ground to gain positions from which to start mines, trenches, or advance batteries.” Union troops dug entrenchments around the city, ever nearer to the fortifications around the city. “With their backs against the Mississippi and Union gunboats firing from the river, Confederate soldiers and citizens alike were trapped. Pemberton was determined to hold his few miles of the Mississippi as long as possible, hoping for relief from Johnston or elsewhere.”

However, the siege was not the only problem that the Confederates faced. “The dead and wounded of Grant’s army lay in the heat of Mississippi summer, the odor of the deceased men and horses fouling the air, the wounded crying for medical help and water.” On May 25, 1863, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton suggested a temporary truce: “Two days having elapsed since your dead and wounded have been lying in our front, and as yet no disposition on your part of a desire to remove them being exhibited: in the name of humanity I have the honor to propose a cessation of hostilities for 2 1/2 hours, that you may be enabled to remove your dead and dying men. If you can not do this, on notification from you that hostilities will be suspended on your part for the time specified, I will endeavor to have the dead buried and the wounded cared for[.]” Initially, Grant refused, but in the afternoon of the 25th, he agreed to Pemberton’s suggested terms, and that evening, the Union troops collected their wounded and dead while mingling with Confederate soldiers “as if no hostilities existed for the moment.” The siege of Vicksburg resumed the next day, and continued until the Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863, one day after Confederate forces at Gettysburg under General Robert E. Lee surrendered.

The 19th Regiment Kentucky Volunteer Infantry was mustered into service in January 1862 and mustered out of service three years later in January 1865, with some veterans becoming a part of the 7th Kentucky Veteran Volunteer Infantry. They participated in the Vicksburg campaign from late April through the surrender, as a part of the 2nd Brigade, 10th Division, XIII Corps, Army of the Tennessee. “The regiment lost a total of 198 men during service; 1 officer and 42 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded, 3 officers and 152 enlisted men died of disease.”

James J. Ray, one of the characters in the story “The Glorious Dead,” was an actual soldier in the 19th Kentucky. He was born in Washington County, Kentucky, in 1819, making him 44 years old during the Siege of Vicksburg. He kept a diary that he eventually sent home to his wife and children, which has remained among his descendants to the present day. The quoted entry of May 25th in the story is taken directly from his diary. Many thanks to James’s descendant, Ian Ruark of Murphysboro, Illinois, for providing me with a copy of his transcription of the diary for use in “The Glorious Dead.”

Fantastic History #59: Beer City by Dawn Vogel

Author Harry E. Chrisman claims that when it comes to the history of the American West, “If [the information] is easy to obtain, then it is ‘old hat’ and has probably been published a dozen times before.” Nonetheless, the history of the American West is filled with colorful characters and stories that have not been told as often as some others.

As Americans filled in the vast lands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, they organized into territories as a form of government, preparatory to becoming states. But the forms of government in these territories ranged from ordered to lawless, and often fell somewhere in between. The piece of land that would ultimately become the Oklahoma Panhandle started out as a part of Texas. However, because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the later Compromise of 1850, the portion of Texas that fell north of the 36°30′ latitude was ceded and became known as the “Public Land Strip.” Since the southern borders of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were set at the 37th latitude, in 1854, there was a strip of land, approximately 34 miles north-south and 170 miles west-east that was not a part of any territory. “No Man’s Land,” as it was known, was in a prime location with regards to Kansas, which had prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol. It was easy to travel across the southern boundary of Kansas and visit a little town called Beer City.

“Town” is a generous description for the settlement. It was mostly tents, with a few actual buildings: “There were eight to ten saloons, a number of gambling houses and several bawdy houses to represent the business Industries of the Strip city.” The Yellow Snake Saloon, run by “Pussy Cat” Nell Jones, was one of those buildings, and likely served as not only a saloon, but also a gambling house and a bawdy house.

Without much in the way of organized law and order, the town had a self-appointed sheriff, Amos (or Lewis) “Brushy” Bush. According to most accounts of the town, he also ran a protection racket, requiring local businesses to pay him money in order for them to make use of his services, whether they were wanted or not. According to Chrisman, “He ruled with sawed off shotgun and six-shooters…. His ‘protection’ came high, but Beer Citizens accepted it—at least for a while.”

Sometime in the late 1880s, a 4th of July celebration in Beer City included a wrestling match and a masked ball. Residents of Beer City placed bets on one or the other of the combatants in the wrestling match, through a man named Fred Oschner. However, Brushy Bush “horned in at the last minute to hold most of the stakes, for 5 percent!” When Pussy Cat Jones found out and registered her displeasure, Brushy Bush pistol whipped her for her temerity.

Pussy Cat Jones then waited a week to enact her revenge. According to Chrisman, “Pussy Cat sat in the upstairs room of her house and saw Brushy Bush passing along the street just below her. Quickly seizing her trustworthy double barrel shotgun loaded with Blue Whistlers, those deadly little steel balls about an eighth of an inch in diameter, she poked the snout of her gun out the window and gave Brushy both barrels in the back of the neck.”

Perhaps if that had been the end of it, the fate of Brushy Bush would have been fairly cut and dried—shot in the back by a woman he had wronged. “But now the other folks of Beer City took up the battle and the crack of rifle and shotgun fire made the street sound like Gettysburg. When one group would run out of ammunition, another would commence firing into Bush’s inert form. When they finally picked his bloody body out of the street and took it out onto the prairie for burial, there was not a whole bone in his body.” Even the newspapers commented on the amount of lead that had been pumped into Brushy Bush. One account gave the numbers as “eight bullets and twenty-three shot,” while another claimed “seventy-four Winchester and pistol shots were fired into Bush’s body.”

Despite how many times Bush had been shot, the authorities did eventually find someone to blame for the murder: John Brennan. “A Paris, Texas, dispatch dated July 3, 1889, says: John Brennan, a white man, had an examination before U. S. Commissioner Kirkpatrick today for the murder of Amos Bush, also white, at Beer City, No Man’s Land, last May, and was committed without bail to await the action of the federal grand jury. Bush was from Dodge City, and was killed by a vigilance committee, one of which was Brennan.”

Clearly, though, it seems impossible for Brennan to have fired all those shots, so why he alone took the blame for the murder of Bush is unclear. At least some speculation on the subject suggests that the townspeople all agreed to fire on Bush to muddy up the evidence of an actual killing shot, assuming they could not all be blamed for Bush’s death.

Another issue with the accounts is that they do not agree—the newspaper article about Brennan’s examination mentions that Bush was murdered in May of 1889, which does not square with Chrisman’s report of it taking place after a 4th of July celebration. Additionally, another newspaper article mentions “Bush was proprietor of a saloon in the city and at the election was defeated for mayor,” and then began rounding up citizens of Beer City for a “bone yard” he planned to create. In this account, “A meeting was held and Bush was ordered to keep quiet or leave town, but he refused to do either,” so the residents banded together to kill him.

Though it is difficult to match up the details of the contemporary newspaper articles and Chrisman’s account, which does not offer any citation, it certainly seems likely that Brushy Bush was not a popular figure in Beer City. Whether he was a lawful man unfairly targeted by unlawful citizens who preferred their town not be policed, a tyrant who picked on the wrong woman, or a belligerent drunk unwilling to accept his loss of the mayoral race, it does seem clear that his murder cannot be pinned on any one individual with any certainty, and thus remains a subject of speculation in the history of the American West.

Sources include

“Arrested for Murder,” Hugoton Hermes, June 21, 1889, transcribed online at

Derrick Ho, “Stories of the Ages: Beer City,” The Oklahoman, accessed January 13, 2017,

Harry E. Chrisman, Lost Tales of the Cimarron (Denver: Sage Books, 1961)

“Oklahoma Panhandle,”, accessed February 13, 2017,

“Oklahoma Panhandle: Badmen in No Man’s Land,”, June 12, 2006,

Woodsdale Sentinel, August 2, 1889, transcribed online at


Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.